Downsizing

Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco are commonly associated with work of heroic proportions. Renowned as leaders of the nationalist Mexican muralist movement in the first half of this century, their names have since been synonymous with revolutionary public art. Together with the sublime Rufino Tamayo, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco have remained the most readily recognized of Mexican painters, their mythic stature overshadowed only in recent years by the movie-star-style martyrdom of Rivera's wife Frida Kahlo.

The intimate paintings, small works on paper, and portraiture included in Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, offer a decidedly humanized view of Mexico's storied artists and others less celebrated. Film producer Jacques Gelman and his wife Natasha, Eastern European immigrants who settled in Mexico City, started buying Mexican art in 1943. They didn't go in much for art that made a strong statement: They stayed away from Siqueiros's political paintings; Orozco's somber indictments of mankind; Kahlo's visceral, confessional retablos; and other intense works, opting instead for more personable if often benign images.

While lacking the grandiosity and passion of the monumental works by these Mexican painters of the muralist and later periods, the Gelman collection does provide insight into the development of twentieth-century Mexican art and underscores often overlooked facts about its better-known players. As this exhibition demonstrates, their art could be mercenary as well as revolutionary. The noble murals were just one aspect of broad, not always successful stylistic experimentation in works that -- despite their site-specific subject matter -- attest the modern Mexican artists' enduring ties to continental classicism and the European avant-garde.

The first painting on display in the gallery is a cubist canvas, Ultima Hora, painted by Diego Rivera in 1915, probably while the artist was in Madrid. Rivera depicts a book, a tin cup, a folded newspaper (Ultima Hora), a napkin holder, and a pitcher in a temperate version of the style more ambitiously experimented with by Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and other artists whom Rivera met in Paris. At this point Rivera had not yet turned to the Mexican themes that would later characterize his work, but the pitcher does have the sturdy earthiness of his indigenous figures -- more like a gourd or a handmade clay vessel than a European glass container.

Rivera lived in Europe from 1907 to 1921, first in Spain and then Paris, and also spent time in Italy. He is often assumed to be the founder of the muralist movement. But Gerardo Murillo, known as Dr. Atl, had already experimented with mural painting with a group of socially-minded young artists at his Centro Artistico school before the Mexican Revolution. Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, and others did not form the Syndicate of Revolutionary Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors of Mexico until 1922.

Abandoning cubism after 1917, Rivera began to move toward representational work that would reflect the social plight of his people. He flirted with surrealism along the way, as seen here in Paisaje con Cactus (Landscape with Cactus), populated by jaunty cactuses -- one with breastlike growths -- who come exuberantly dancing over a hill as if leading a May Day celebration. A later gouache on paper, 1943's El Curandero (The Healer), an intense scene in a botanica, has some of the plaintive emotion of the displaced individuals found in Rivera's murals.

Upon his return to Mexico, Rivera dedicated his major works to the revolutionary cause. His political (if never his aesthetic) commitment later proved questionable; as Octavio Paz said, "Rivera is an artist who put the revolution in the service of his art." In any case, the artist always acceded to the bourgeois necessity of paying the rent with paintings he did for collectors. One of the Gelmans' purchases, the pleasingly decorative Vendedora de Alcatraces (The Calla Lily Vendor), a large painting on masonite in which two Indian woman crouch beside a huge basket of flowers, is one of at least a dozen similar works. Pictures of children were also among Rivera's big sellers. Two such paintings are exhibited here. A grotesque, caricaturish image of a girl with gloves on and a bow in her hair is truly frightful.

One of a number of commissioned paintings of the Gelmans included in the exhibition is Rivera's stilted glam-girl portrait of Natasha posing on a settee backed by the familiar calla lilies. Others include a rather decadent, mannered painting of Jacques in a director's chair by Rivera contemporary Angel Zarraga, and a subtle, evocative portrait of Natasha by Rufino Tamayo -- the most heartfelt of these commissioned works.

Other portraits and self-portraits included in the show are more interesting than these images of the Gelmans. Cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias's humorous watercolor of the rotund Rivera, looking like a Hasidic Jew with a black hat and side curls, shows him leaning on a hand-carved wooden staff and backed by fiesta decorations, alluding to the maestro's populist concerns.

In a powerful small self-portrait, Orozco depicts himself frowning, with a serious stare befitting a man with the woes of the world on his mind. Among his other works included here, Untitled (Salón Mexico), from the Forties, offers evidence of his beginnings as a caricaturist and his lifelong commitment to unflinching social commentary. He paints in detail a lineup of weary working girls waiting for partners in a Mexico City cabaret.

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